The Sinister Plot Behind The Super-Mega Pass

by The Editors on March 5, 2019

It’s barely March and already the resort industrial complex is inundating us with marketing for their super-mega season passes for the winter of 2019-2020. Really? Already? Why are they doing this and what does it mean all mean? We’re glad you asked.

Before we dive in let’s make one thing clear — obviously if you ride 20 days a year or more at the same few resorts owned by the same corporation then buying a super-mega pass is a no-brainer. Spend the $950 and get on it. If, however, you enjoy controlling your own money, waiting for good snow, and riding different resorts all season long, here are a few things you might want to consider before shelling out hard earned cash on an Epic or Ikon pass.

The corporations that run ski resorts in North America (Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts) have very sound business reasons for selling super-mega season passes and they have nothing to do with giving you a good deal. They’re not interested in saving you a boatload of money. And it’s not because they’re putting their guest’s needs first. It all comes down to three main goals:

  1. They want your money now. Not next year. Now!
  2. They want ALL your money. Resorts don’t want you to spend a dime with their competitors (or competitor as the case may be in North America).
  3. They want to offload all their weather related business risks to you so they won’t have to worry as much when a bad snow year strikes.

Once you understand this, the whole mega-pass gambit makes more sense — for the resorts. Look at the way they promote their mega-pass sales. It’s like they’re setting up a con. First, they manufacture scarcity to increase perceived value: “This special deal is available for a limited time only.” We’ve all see the emails, “You have one more week to lock in savings.” “Hurry, this deal won’t last forever.” Why won’t it last? Good question. It could last all season. There’s nothing stopping the resorts from selling super-mega passes all season long. It wouldn’t even be that bad a deal for them. People who bought passes later in the year would have fewer chances to use them. You’d think resorts would do that. But selling passes later in the season doesn’t get your money a year in advance and lock you into their resort for the entire season, and it certainly doesn’t protect resort owners from the specter of a bad snow year.

Secondly, resorts artificially inflate the cost of a daily lift pass to increase the perceived savings the super-mega pass potentially offers. This is the trick that gets most people. The logic fallacy goes like this — at Mammoth Mountain a “same day” lift ticket sold at the ticket window currently costs around $170. At Vail it’s $209.  If the new Ikon Pass is $949 (Vail’s Epic is $939) it would seem that after only six days on the mountain the pass would pay for itself. Right? Wrong. That wildly expensive day ticket price is not the price smart people actually pay for lift tickets. Thanks to advance purchases and/or offsite ticket buying (like Costco for instance) the real price of tickets is substantially lower. By purchasing a 5 of 7 day ticket pack online a couple weeks in advance the price per day at Mammoth goes down to $92. Buying tickets at Costco can sometimes bring prices down to around $85 a day. So, the actual earn back on a pass slips into the 11 day range. Those who make it to one of the mountains 15 times over the course of a season might save $25 a day. But that’s if there is snow, if they don’t get injured, move jobs, or take off to Mexico for the winter, because, the super-mega passes “may not be cancelled,” are “non-refundable and non-transferable” i.e. you’re not getting your money back if you don’t use it. They do sell pass insurance to cover some of theses issues, but the fact that they even sell pass insurance proves what a crazy game this whole deal is.

Finally, resorts know what many visitors don’t. And that is that no matter how much people plan, no matter what a snowboarder’s intentions are, the average North American resort visitor only rides the lifts a little over five days a season. That means if the resort sells a season pass for $950 they’re getting (on average) $189 a day, or close to twice the actual cost of a daily, pre-purchased, bargain ticket. No surprise, resorts make more selling the super-mega passes than they do by selling reasonably priced daily tickets. And where is this “more” coming from? From people who optimistically buy the pass and then don’t make it to the mountain enough to recoup the cost. Resorts will of course say that people who buy passes visit more often, and that is likely true, but since resorts won’t release many hard numbers on how many passes they sell or how often they are used, it’s impossible to know exactly how it all pans out. It must be good, because the resorts certainly want us to buy these passes now, now, now. Vail is even throwing in ten free “buddy tickets” if you act now! And Alterra will let you ride after April 8, 2019 at Mammoth Mountain and 10 other resorts this spring on next year’s pass.

So, Should You Buy A Super-Mega Pass?

The answer to this question comes down to math. If you’re the snowboarder we described in the second paragraph, and you’re certain you’ll ride more than 20 days next year, AND you’ll be riding at one of the 38 Ikon, or 67 Epic Pass resorts, AND you don’t mind spending $950 on something you won’t use much for nearly a year, then buy the pass. If you’re not absolutely sure about all of the above, and you don’t enjoy the feeling of getting played by the marketing wizards at the big resort corps, then we believe it would be smarter to wait, hold on to your money, and play next season as it comes.

For more on the super-mega pass, how it has come to be such a big deal in resort marketing, and who is to blame, check out this story One Pass To Ski Them All on Bloomberg News.

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